Choosing a Career in the Trades

Finding A New Career Path

Picture this scene – A computer programmer named Peter works at a generic office and suffers daily from the humdrum of a boring and pointless existence. He rebels, hijinks ensue, and eventually, he discovers happiness working with his neighbor on a construction site.

Yes, I just recited the plot from the 1999 movie ‘Office Space.’

As we head into what is traditionally the ‘busy’ season for the mechanical trades (heating and cooling, plumbing), companies are looking to hire new employees. The ideal candidate for these jobs are individuals that, in addition to holding the requisite traits of any good employee, are skilled in one or more disciplines within the PHC (Plumbing, Heating, Cooling) industry.

Every business in this industry is witnessing a lack of talent to be hired.

Researching Different Career Fields

When I was growing up, my dad worked in a blue-collar industry. He repaired and installed septic tank systems. He was always mechanically gifted, but didn’t find much success in the classroom. His career choice was deemed respectable, but there was a rule in our house for my siblings and I – you will go to college no matter what. Underlying that was a general consensus among the kids my age that college equals success, and going ‘blue collar’ was a compromise in the least, and a failure at most. It was a bias that society had put in place that remains today.

So, I listened to my parents, got my college degree and after serving almost five years in the Army, went back to school for my MBA. During my studies, I did extensive research into career fields, and discovered that the projected needs in skilled trades were going to be severely underserved during my work lifetime. Still, upon graduation I applied to a number of ‘white collar’ companies, figuring that jobs would be stacked up just waiting for me to choose. I was wrong. The jobs that were available looked a lot like the bland environment shown in ‘Office Space.’

In the end, I purchased Griffin Mechanical, LLC, a company comprised of ‘blue collar’ workers that are proud tradesmen in the HVAC and plumbing crafts.

Griffin Mechanical’s technicians and installers operate with a sense of self-respect, individuality, and tangibility that is often lacking in the ‘white collar’ world.

When I bought the company in 2010, I told my new employees that they would be in greater demand than computer programmers before we retire.

A Closing Gap

According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, a computer programmer earned a median wage of $79,530 in 2015, with starting salaries around $44,450. Those salaries increase with added knowledge and skills and can easily reach the six figure range over time. Most of these jobs require a bachelor’s degree. There is a ten-year projected decline in growth of -8%. This decline is largely attributed to the ease of outsourcing these skills overseas.

The median pay for an HVAC technician in 2015 was $45,110. These salaries can also go up with added knowledge and skills. There is a projected ten-year 14% job growth in the industry, with a large number of workers ‘aging out.’

The median pay for a plumber is higher at $51,450. Again, these salaries increase with added knowledge and skill, and I’m often hard pressed to find an experienced plumber who isn’t making over $80,000 per year.

There is a projected ten-year growth of 12% in the industry.

These examples illustrate one of the principals of business that I was taught in my MBA program – supply and demand. The supply of computer programmers is worldwide. The supply of plumbers and HVAC workers is not. The demand for computer programmers has been filled. The demand for plumbers and HVAC workers has not. While the gaps in pay are still evident, they will be closing soon. My researched and anecdotal opinion is this – the pay gap between the ‘blue collar’ skilled trades and the ‘white collar’ college producing jobs is closing, and faster than I projected.

My proclamation from 2010 is being proven true. Classroom knowledge and ‘soft’ skills are becoming available to a wider audience every day through technology, while ‘hard’ skills like repairing and assembling mechanical items are becoming more and more scarce.

The New Peter Principle

There’s another story that the numbers don’t tell you. There is a rising trend in the market for careers that are a newer version of the creative class. Work that was once looked down upon for being ‘low brow’ is now seen as functional occupations with transparent customer encounters.

Like Peter from Office Space, the new generation of workers don’t want to sit in a cubicle and fill out TPS reports all day. They want to produce with their hands while using their minds to solve problems.

I’m already seeing it in my business. Griffin Mechanical’s top technicians and job foreman earn more per year than their white collar counterparts in many industries. They get to drive by buildings and tell their children, ‘I helped build that.’ They get to go to customers’ homes and businesses and solve problems, make recommendations, and leave with a sense of accomplishment. No two jobs are the same, and if they don’t like the environment they are working in today, they can look forward to having a different one tomorrow.

The proof is in the numbers – according to the most recent employee survey date (acquired from Nexstar Networks), PHC employees are almost three times more fully engaged than their peers in the US workforce.

Griffin Mechanical’s employees have scored in the 90th percentile of engagement for the last five years.

People who work in our career fields are, in essence, happy.

Learn The Skills Of The Industry

You can’t outsource a leaking faucet. You can’t call Mumbai to get your HVAC unit repaired. Apple doesn’t make an app for replacing the condenser on a geothermal heating and cooling unit. Robots will not be installing garbage disposals anytime soon.

My advice? Learn the hard skills first and work in the industry. Then continue your development by focusing on the ‘soft’ skills, like management, finance, and business. Get a job as a plumber, HVAC tech, or electrician. Then attend a local college in the evenings, or pursue an online degree. When the two skill sets combine you will have a powerful resume as a job prospect, with the ability to go through your career knowing that you will always be able to support yourself and your family. Even if you find yourself without a ‘job,’ you will not find yourself without work. You can pick up your toolbox and make a few bucks at any time. You will be flexible to change and adaptable to the market.